A man of action needs to be where the action is. Back in the 1700’s there was plenty to do in the Russian far east. Vitus Jonassen Bering, a Dane, had joined Peter the Great’s navy and in 1724 led an expedition that sailed north into the Arctic sea. This confirmed that Siberia was not attached to Alaska. Bad weather had hampered the expedition and there remained much to put on the charts, it led to a second expedition, once again commanded by Bering. This became an epic. It left St Petersburg in 1733 and didn’t get afloat until 1740.
Georg Wilhelm Steller was born in Windsheim, Germany in 1709. The original spelling of his surname was Stöhler which subsequently became Stöller and ultimately was immortalised as Steller. He studied medicine, as well as theology, and the natural sciences including botany at the University of Wittenberg. He joined the Russian army and travelled to St Petersburg as a surgeon on a troop ship. There he left the army and laid the foundations of a career as a physician for the archbishop of Novgorod, married and continued his interest in natural history.
It was an exciting time to be interested in natural history, Linnaeus published Systema Naturae in 1735. Here was a method by which to organise the natural world, there was an enormous catalogue just waiting to be filled.
Steller volunteered to join the Great Northern Expedition and headed east. He left St Petersburg in January 1738 and reached Okhotsk and the main expedition in March 1740 as Bering’s ships the St. Peter and St. Paul were nearing completion. In September the expedition set sail. It was late in the season, the two ships rounded the Kamchatka Peninsula and laid up for the winter in Avacha Bay on the Pacific coast. Steller went ashore where he helped organize a local school and began exploring Kamchatka.
On June 4th 1741 the great adventure finally got under way, Bering commanded the St. Peter, Aleksey Chirikov commanded the St. Paul. Steller was on the St Peter. Steller’s new companions may not have enjoyed his company much. Corey Ford tells the story in Where the Sea Breaks Its Back and describes him thus …
hypersensitive himself and yet insensitive to the feelings of others, indefatigable and brilliant but dogmatic and without tact, an irascible genius who lacked the saving grace of humility, and who was unable to tolerate any difference of opinion.
We could put it more bluntly, a genius but an arrogant prick. He and I have so much in common.
The ships were separated in stormy weather, Chirikov put some of the Aleutian Islands on the map. Bering stayed further south, Steller urged a more northerly course and when the wisdom of his advice was finally heeded the St Peter made landfall on Kayak Island, Alaska on July 29th 1741. Steller was the first ashore and was allowed a mere 10 hours to make his mark on North America’s natural history.
Which of course he did, Steller’s Jay. He recognised the similarity of this new Jay to the better known Blue Jay that he had read about, and deduced from the relationship that he was indeed in North America. He recorded the details in his journal, the bird was named in his honour after his death.
On the return journey the St Peter was driven ashore on what has become Bering Island. Storms had made it impossible to fix their position for more than a week. Land, believed to be the Kamchatka Peninsula but in reality one of the Commander Islands, was sighted on November 4th. That night in wild weather, the St Peter was swept over a reef and found itself in a lagoon from which there was no escape.
The next morning the crew landed. With their limited supplies they set about preparing their new home. It was to be a hard winter. Vitus Bering died on the 8th December, the cause usually being cited as scurvy but he was ill prior to the shipwreck. Twenty eight of his men followed him to the grave with scurvy rather more certainly to blame. Steller, meanwhile ate berries and fresh greens and encouraged others to do likewise.
Whilst the men filled their time beating off Arctic Foxes and gambling, Steller spent his beating off Arctic Foxes and studying the flora and fauna, including detailed observations of Steller’s Sea Cow; the only detailed observations because it was soon to be extinct.
In the spring the St Peter was stripped and a new boat built from the salvaged materials. The new St Peter sailed on August 13th 1742 and arrived in Petropavlosk 12 days later.
The glory, such as it was, had gone to Chirikov, commander of the St Paul. The crew of St Peter, it was assumed, had all perished. Peter the Great was dead, Empress Elizabeth had turned Russia in on itself, men of action from foreign parts were no longer welcome. Steller remained in Kamchatka, kept body and soul together teaching and by other odd jobs, and continued his studies. His writings made it back to civilisation but little of his collections survived.
His sympathies for the native people combined with his lack of tact towards their imperial overlords got him into strife. He was arrested for treason and sent towards St Petersburg, but exonerated and freed along the way, and, because communications were poor in those days, arrested again and freed again. Circumstance had led him to Tyumen in Siberia where he caught a fever and died. He was 35.
He wrote of himself, “I have fallen in love with nature”.
It was through his writings that he reached the outside world. He discovered scores of new plants, several new mammals, birds, even fish. His contribution has been recognised by the biologists that followed him in the names of things …
- Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri)
- Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
- Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
- Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)
- Steller’s sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
- Whitespotted (or Steller’s) greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri )
- Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri)
- Hoary mugwort (Artemisia stelleriana)
- Stellera – (a genus in the Thymelaeaceae, a family of flowering plants)
The most magnificent of them all …